GEM OF ZEN #40
It came to me one day that the purpose of all posts so far as part of this Gems of Zen series was to assist in activating a particular nerve in our bodies (the Vagus Nerve). This nerve helps to relax and calm us, combatting stress and bringing us some zen. Yet, there’s no post on this nerve as part of the series so far! So here I am, fixing that now! Without getting too scientific or lengthy, let’s learn about the Vagus Nerve and how we can activate it.
Please note that I have no medical background (apart from being a Mum of three and having lived for 58.5 years). Everything within this post is based on my own research. If you want to know more about anything to do with the Vagus Nerve, please seek the advice of a medical professional.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The Vagus Nerve has nothing to do with Las Vegas in case you’re wondering, but it sure is a showstopper! It comes from the Latin word, vagus, for “wandering.” That’s because it wanders throughout your body, with wide distribution connecting the brainstem to the body. It’s the longest cranial nerve in your body, running from your brain all the way to your large intestine. Only mammals have this nerve.
It helps the immune system and inflammation response to disease. Your vagus nerve plays a part in controlling involuntary sensory and motor functions like your heart rate, speech, mood and urine output. It has four main functions: sensory, special sensory, motor and parasympathetic.
This post focusses on the the vagal nerves involvement with your Parasympathetic Nervous System. What’s the Parasympathetic Nervous System I hear you ask?
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The Parasympathetic Nervous System is a system of nerves that relaxes your body after periods of stress or danger. It also helps run life-sustaining processes, like digestion, during times when you feel safe and relaxed. Doctors often call the parasympathetic nervous system the “rest and digest” side, while the sympathetic is the “fight or flight.”
Back now to the Vagus Nerve. It’s the body’s super power and can be used to counteract your fight/flight system. It’s how you develop a healthy stress response and become resilient. The vagus nerve is your secret weapon in fighting stress!
The Sympathetic Nervous System and the Vagus Nerve
When you are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system causes your body to go into a heightened state commonly referred to as the “fight or flight response”. In this state, heart rate increases, bronchial tubes in your lungs dilate to take in more oxygen, muscles tense, and more glycogen is converted into glucose. This process developed evolutionarily in order to prepare the body to run away from things that endanger it. But, in addition to these smaller changes, other body processes are slowed or stopped, including saliva production, gastrointestinal function, and digestion. Though we may no longer need to physically run away from the things that cause us stress all the time, these changes to our bodily functions still occur. The vagus nerve is responsible for the “calming” of your body and the returning of the body to homeostasis, also known as the “rest and digest” state, after periods of stress. Therefore, when the vagus nerve is not functioning properly, your body does not return to homeostasis as it should.
What activates the Vagus Nerve?
Here’s some of the main things that will help to activate the Vagus Nerve:
- Deep, slow, belly breathing. Breathe more slowly (aim for six breaths per minute). Breathe more deeply, from the belly. Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale. Exhale longer than you inhale. It’s the exhale that triggers the relaxation response.
- Foot massage: gentle or firm touch can assist in stimulation the vagus nerve.
- Safe Touch – oxytocin release is so intimately tied to feeling safe that it can be triggered from any type of positive social interaction or warm touch. Research shows that safe touch activates your parasympathetic nervous system and increases heart rate variability. There are various vagus nerve points that respond to tactile stimulation (like the foot massage above).
- The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chords so can be activated by singing, humming, chanting and gargling.
- Cold water face immersion: immerse your forehead eyes and at least 2/3 of both cheeks into cold water. This elicits the vagus nerve, decreasing heart rate, stimulating the intestines and turns on the immune system.
- Eating fibre stimulates vagus impulses to the brain slowing the gut movements and making us feel fuller after meals.
- Healthy Gut – research shows that when you’re stressed, it can impair the function of your vagus nerve and allow for inflammation to occur, which then impacts the health of your microbiome. It’s hypothesized then, that the bidirectional influence of a healthy gut can increase vagal regulation and therefore reduce stress.
- Laughter: having a good laugh lifts your mood, boosts your immune system and stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Meditation – incorporating the deep, slow, belly breathing as outlined above.
- Yoga Practice – especially yogic breathing directly stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Exercise – especially activities that get your heart rate up, offers a great way to tone your vagus nerve.
- Music – when you apply the right music for your mind, you’re really choosing music that resonates in the vagus nerve to trigger a parasympathetic response that soothes the body into a calmer state. This is how the vibrations of sound can soothe your physical body, which in turn soothes the mind.
- Restful Sleep – keep your sleep/wake cycles consistent.
- Regular Sunshine – exposing the skin to a safe amount of sunlight can produce a hormone that improves vagus nerve function.
- The vagus nerve is activated when you are feeling compassion and empathy.
Just like training your muscles so they’re healthy and strong, you can learn to work with your nervous system to make it more flexible, adaptable, and resilient. The key to this is the Vagus Nerve.
Ciao for now,
Linking up with Denyse Whelan’s ‘Wednesday’s Words and Pics‘